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Intermediary liability fears run high in Australia as CNN restricts access to Facebook page

News outlet CNN avoids becoming a casualty of an Australian court’s ruling on intermediary liability, and it won’t be the last.

As a clear sign of news publishers in Australia fearing intermediary liability, US-based news organisation CNN has restricted Australians’ access to its Facebook page, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. The decision comes weeks after Australia’s High Court ruled that news publishers will be held liable for Facebook comments published underneath their posts, regardless of if the original article or post is defamatory in nature.

The apex court’s ruling has been termed as a blow to the freedom of expression of internet users by legal experts. While CNN’s readership in Australia is not very high, lawyers predict other publishers could also restrict their accounts to avoid liability.

What was the High Court judgement?

Earlier this month, Australia’s High Court ruled that administrators of Facebook pages and news publishers will be liable for any defamatory content (posted by users as comments) on their websites and their Facebook pages. The ruling was made in a defamation case filed by former juvenile detainee Dylan Voller against multiple news organisations.

In 2016, Voller’s images were used in multiple stories on the mistreatment of prisoners in Australian prisons which led to false claims about his criminal charges. Subsequently, Voller filed a defamation suit against news organisations alleging that they should be held liable for comments posted underneath their articles.

The altercation between Facebook and CNN

According to WSJ, Facebook had refused to help CNN disable all comments on its pages in Australia. Instead, CNN would have to set restrictions on its posts individually as per a feature that the social network had released in March allowing celebrities, politicians, and news outlets to restrict comments on their pages. Contending that this would be time-consuming, the media company decided to restrict access from Australia to its pages entirely. A CNN spokesperson told WSJ, “We are disappointed that Facebook, once again, has failed to ensure its platform is a place for credible journalism and productive dialogue around current events among its users.”

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Facebook, however, said that it had provided CNN and other publishers with all necessary information about tools they could use to manage public comments on their pages. It also said that it supports the reform in Australia’s defamation laws, WSJ reported.

As of September 29, users in Australia get an error message upon opening any of CNN’s Facebook pages, according to Reuters.

Intermediary liability protections shrink

While Australian news bodies have suffered a major setback, intermediary liability protections are also shrinking back home in India. In May, the government enforced the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021 which require social media and news intermediaries to publish compliance reports, appoint nodal officers, comply with government censorship orders within 36 hours and, in some cases, even break end-to-end encryption.

Non-compliance with these clauses would result in an intermediary losing its safe harbour status or immunity from legal action against any unlawful content posted on their platform by a third party. Until recently, Twitter was engaged in a long-drawn tussle with the government for failure to comply with the IT Rules. Various news media organisations have also moved court against the IT Rules, resulting in some sections of the rules being put on hold by the courts.

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Written By

I cover health and education technology for MediaNama. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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